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MIT Sloan study finds moral beliefs key to understanding and predicting violence

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Nov. 25, 2015 – What makes people violent? While most explanations tend to assume that violence results from a failure to act morally, a new book by MIT Sloan School of Management lecturer Tage Rai finds that most violence is actually motivated by moral sentiments. The perpetuators of violence actually feel that not committing the violent act would be morally wrong.

Rai, coauthor of the book Virtuous Violence, says, “It’s not about a breakdown in moral sensibilities, but rather that perpetuators of violence have a different sense of morality. They view violence as the fundamentally right thing to do even though we cannot see any possible justification for it.”

He began studying this issue by asking why people disagree when and if violence is appropriate. He looked at a diversity of scenarios, such as why spanking children was more acceptable 50 years ago than today, and why it is still more acceptable in certain parts of the country. He looked at issues globally, asking why it is incomprehensible to Westerners to kill women for sexual infidelity, yet other parts of the world encourage this practice.

The commonality, says Rai, is that the primary motivations for violence are moral. “The general pattern my colleague and I observed was that violence is intended to regulate social relationships and sustain a moral order. The perpetuators are in control of their actions and their intention is to harm fellow human beings.”

Looking at violent scenarios through this lens, he notes that spanking is perceived by parents as a moral duty to ensure that children become responsible adults. Similarly, drill sergeants and gang leaders inflict aggression and violence on new recruits to create lifelong bonds and instill absolute obedience, which are required in battle. This mentality is also seen with terrorists, who believe they are morally justified and obligated to commit acts of terror. 

Rai further found that dehumanizing subjects doesn’t increase the likelihood of violence. He explains that when violence is morally justified to the perpetuator, it needs to cause pain and suffering for it to have meaning, otherwise it would be pointless. In contrast, when people harm others for money or other material goods, violence is just a byproduct.

This doesn’t mean that people enjoy committing acts of violence. “Like many moral practices, such as standing up for what is right or telling the truth, it can be very upsetting to commit violence and may even require special training and social support,” he says.

These findings, notes Rai, can help us reduce violence around the world. “The key is to change cultural standards and make violence immoral. There are interventions we can do at the psychological level, but a lot of the work falls under social structure changes like giving people more opportunities, reducing inequality, and increasing stability.”

He points to the general decrease in violence historically as evidence that cultural values are changing in a way that shuns violence..

“The good news is that violence is changeable and is changing. Historically, the global rates of violence as a percentage of the population is decreasing. The motives for violence will continue to exist, but we can work for more peaceful responses,” adds Rai.

Tage Rai is a lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and coauthor of the book Virtuous Violence with Alan Fiske.

The MIT Sloan School of Management is where smart, independent leaders come together to solve problems, create new organizations, and improve the world. Learn more at mitsloan.mit.edu.